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Dustin Putman

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Underworld (2003)
2 Stars

Directed by Len Wiseman
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Scott Speedman, Shane Brolly, Michael Sheen, Bill Nighy, Sophia Myles, Erwin Leder
2003 – 121 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, gore, and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 20, 2003.

A motion picture pitting vampires and werewolves against each other is a novel idea, and one that has been taken surprisingly little advantage of. Because such a premise is still an original one and could be taken in a number of different exciting directions, debuting director Len Wiseman and screenwriter Danny McBride had free reign of the topic and folklore behind each myth—and they botch it. Needlessly complicated from a plot standpoint and sorely undernourished on the basis of its characters, "Underworld" is a true case of style over substance. If you pay little attention to the specifics of the convoluted premise and simply wallow in the sumptuous, gothic-style cinematography by Tony Pierce-Roberts, you may just find yourself enjoying the film more than expected. It's only when you actually start paying attention to the narrative that serious problems arise.

Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a vampiric "death dealer" who spends her nights prowling the city streets in search of the werewolf race, whom she blames for the rest of her family's untimely deaths. Her one-track mission is complicated when she finds herself going against the beliefs of the rest of the vampires to help an innocent medical intern, Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman), who is bitten by a werewolf. As Michael walks the line between being human and growing into the very beast she despises, Selene begins to fall in love with him.

So much of the plot of "Underworld" hinges on the love story that develops between Selene and Michael that it is ludicrous how little time is spent developing these two individuals. While Selene's background is briefly discussed, no apparent reason is given for why she is falling for Michael, and why she is willing to give everything up for him. Meanwhile, Michael remains a tabula rasa from start to finish. Once bitten, his feelings and emotions on unavoidably losing his profession and the life he knows is skidded over in favor of action sequences and involute plot developments. When neither lead character nor their romance is intimately written or even that likable, and almost all of the villains interchangeably look exactly alike, why should the viewer care who wins and who loses the battle?

As the opinionated and tough Selene, Kate Beckinsale (2001's "Serendipity") struggles to give her character extra shadings when nothing of the sort is offered up in the script. She looks awfully cool shooting guns and sexy wearing leather, but when these physical traits are what stand out the most in a protagonist, you know you are in trouble. Scott Speedman (2003's "Dark Blue") has even less to do as Michael, basically playing Selene's scared little bitch throughout the running time. As ancient vampire lord Viktor, who is resurrected by Selene a century before his due date, Bill Nighy is a frighteningly imposing standout. The rest of the male characters, both vampires and werewolves, are scruffy and have long, dark hair; it is nearly impossible to tell them apart and follow their own shady, senseless subplots.

With hard rock and heavy metal music blaring through the fight sequences, plausible special effects filling the frames, and expert cinematography and production design on constant display, "Underworld" is one of the most visually stunning motion pictures of the year. Everything else, including an anticlimactic ending that more or less reveals everything that has come before as a cheap setup for a sequel, is ready for the scriptwriter's junkyard.
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman